The University of Illinois Board of Trustees accepted The Student Legal Service Plan on June 21, 1978. Long before The Student Legal Service Plan was officially sanctioned by the University, a means for students to obtain legal assistance existed at the Urbana-Champaign Campus. As early as 1966 as part of LBJ’s Great Society program, a semi-formal Student Legal Service Program existed as an aspect of 1960s Community Action Programs.
In the 1970s, Community Action Programs largely ceased to exist; however, provision for legal assistance eventually evolved into what is now the Legal Service Corporation. Student Legal Service programs at this University and at most others did not get folded into the Legal Service Corporation, which had as its mission providing legal assistance to those at or near the Federal Poverty Level.
Students are often considered to be voluntarily poor and come from highly diverse economic backgrounds, and thus rarely are eligible for assistance through the various Legal Service Corporation programs, such as Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance or Prairie State Legal Assistance. Students continued to have the need for legal assistance throughout the 1960s and 1970s with the need arising from anti-war arrests, discrimination against student voting rights, and illegal evictions by Champaign-Urbana landlords.
Student Government raised money to have a campus legal service program independent of the University. Dorm refrigerators were rented by students at the old Armory with the proceeds being used to fund the Student Legal Service office. The annual budget was unpredictable, which made it difficult to retain qualified student attorneys on a full-time, long-term basis.
The Program, prior to 1978, retained a number of attorneys who fought for students in the Court system. These attorneys include: Marvin Gerstein, James Kuehl, Martin Knanisho, and Robert Finch, along with volunteer law students from the University of Illinois College of Law.
In the late 1970s, it became clear to both the student body and the University that there was an ongoing need for legal assistance on campus with a more formal program and a stable funding source. Student Government and various student organizations pushed for the creation of a consistent funding mechanism which eventually became the Student Organization Resource Fee (S.O.R.F.).
University of Illinois Office of Legal Counsel, with assistance of various other campus units and student input, drafted The Student Legal Service Plan. A new plan was drafted in the Spring and Summer of 2012, and the Student Legal Services (SLS) Operational Plan was instituted as of Fiscal Year 2013.
The SORF fee, from its inception, had as its primary function the funding of the Student Legal Service. In July of 2010, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees directed the campuses of Urbana-Champaign and Chicago to make the fees that would fund their respective SLS offices non-refundable, and as of the Fall 2011 semester, the fee was moved from the SORF fee to the non-refundable Service Fee.
Since 1978, the following attorneys have worked in the Program, in order of hire: Richard Witham, Regina B. Haasis, Bryan Savage, Brenda Hook, Thomas E. Betz*, Susan Y. Hessee*, Shari Edelman, Sue Sheldon, John P. Popek, James P. Biggins, Jeremy D. Grose, and Mary Ann Midden*.
* Denotes current staff attorneys.
Over the past three decades, the University of Illinois Student Legal Service Program has directly served over 62,000 individual students, and indirectly all students on campus through preventive education programs, brochures, advertisement, seminars, as well as through impact litigation, which benefits thousands of students in establishing legal precedents in the areas of Tenant Rights, Search and Seizure, etc.
In 2005, the Program was named, “Outstanding Student Legal Services Office” by the Southwest Region – University Student Legal Services Association, and in 2007, the Program received “The Jim Aldridge Award for Special Project Excellence” by the University Student Legal Service Association - Western Region.
The staff attorneys are active with both the National Legal Aid and Defenders Associations (NLADA) and the University Student Legal Service Association - Western Region (USLSA).